Renault hopes that its new Clio, on sale mid-June, will follow in the tyre-tracks of its predecessor, which has been a huge success throughout Europe - and a solid fleet seller in the UK. With eight equipment levels, a choice of no less than seven engines - one with the lowest carbon dioxide emissions on the UK market - keen pricing and a mind-boggling choice of colours and trim specifications, the new Clio will certainly be a very strong contender in the ever-growing supermini segment of the market.
The new styling is evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and Renault reckons it is possible to mix and match the options to such a degree that there are more than 5,100 combinations on offer. Of course, in this segment there is very strong opposition from established contenders, including the Ford Fiesta, Vauxhall Corsa, Peugeot 206, Volkswagen Polo, Fiat Punto and Toyota Yaris.
But, at the recent press launch in France, Renault put up a strong case against the opposition and in favour of the Clio - particularly the car's standard equipment values, excellent safety specification and class-leading economy. The icing on the gateau is that the flagship 2.0-litre Clio Renaultsport 172 is a true transport of delight for keen drivers who like a bit of flair.
Although instantly recognisable as a Clio, Renault claims that no less than 50% of the body parts and running gear are new. The most striking changes are to the frontal elements, with a bolder grille - not to everyone's taste, it must be said - altered bumpers and a big badge.
In anticipation of really radical future Renault styling cues, the Clio has more than a hint of the soon-to-be-launched, boldly-styled Vel Satis. In the metal though, the Clio is nowhere near so unconventional. The interior is all-new, with a completely redesigned facia, classier materials, more facilities for oddment stowage and crisper, more harmonious lines. Certainly from behind the wheel, the perceived impression is of a higher-quality product than before.
From the fleet angle - and increasingly, it seems, the retail market viewpoint also - the new diesel options are of particular interest since the most powerful one, although not qualifying for a Euro IV rating, achieves the lowest combined-cycle fuel consumption and CO2 emissions figures of any car on the UK market. Fleet users will benefit accordingly when it comes to tax allowances.
There are two common rail, direct injection turbodiesels offered, both basically the same 1.5-litre engine, but only one with an intercooler to increase the efficiency of the turbo-charger and boost power by 15bhp and torque by 18lb/ft. Both are impressive and contemporary power units that are refined, torquey and easy to live with. Renault UK predicts the 1.2-litre petrol models will be top UK sellers but the anticipated - and already apparent - shift to diesel in the fleet and retail markets, combined with the all-round excellence of this new oil-burner, might confound its prophecy.
As a selling-point, Renault is really pushing the generous equipment that comes as standard with each variant. The entry-level model is the Authentique, which along with all Clios gets ABS with emergency brake assist, a quartet of airbags, power steering, electric front windows, remote central locking, rain-sensing wipers and steering column-mounted audio controls.
Next up is the Privilege at £10,795, then there are the Expression, Expression+, Dynamique, Dynamique+, and the Initiale. Space precludes listing each individual specification in detail but each targets a different customer profile, offering varying cocktails of extras such as air-conditioning, heat-reflecting windscreens, a light sensor that switches on dipped headlights when ambient light levels fall, electric sunroof, height-adjustable driver's seat, alloys, sports seats, cruise control, trip computer, Xenon headlights, leather, satellite navigation system - claimed as first in class - and an electronic stability programme.
Safety is also a strong feature. Clio II achieved a four-star rating under the Euro-NCAP system and Clio III has been upgraded further still, with four standard airbags, the stiffer body structure and additional protection against frontal and side impacts.
ON the road, both the 1.2 16v and 1.5 dCi impressed with their supple and bump-absorbing ride quality. Steering is crisp and direct and the manual gearbox smooth and precise. Mechanical noise levels are low, even with the diesel - but there was irritating wind noise from around the front-door upper edge on two of the cars driven.
The range-topping Renaultsport 172 has a very different character to the lowlier models in the range. Performance is decidedly muscular, matched by a delightfully sporty exhaust note. Handling and grip are of an extremely high standard but the price paid is a very hard ride and noticeable roar from the fat, 16in low-profile tyres over some surfaces.
RENAULT claims the new Clio will cost 9% less than the market-leading Ford Fiesta in terms of wholelife costs. Nick Tame, Renault's national fleet sales manager, says: 'When you compare Clio to Fiesta, the segment leader, it works out about 9% cheaper over three years/60,000 miles - and it is about £400 cheaper than the Corsa. Of course, fuel savings are a big chunk of that.'
'The standard specifications are also very strong,' said Tame. 'Cars in this segment tend to appeal to low-volume customers, such as small driving schools, but we believe Clio will score with larger fleets too. We are already having talks with one of the very large driving schools.' In the UK, Clio was the ninth best-seller overall in 2000 and fourth best-selling car in its segment, behind the Ford Fiesta, Vauxhall Corsa and Peugeot 206, with 2.76% of the UK market.